This paper will analyse three of the literary elements – tone, point of view and symbolism - in Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour. Each of these elements will be analysed in turn so that their contribution to the overall meaning of the story can be assessed. These three elements have been chosen because they are crucial to a full understanding of the story and also because, as this paper will demonstrate, at certain points of the story they are closely interlinked: that the tone depends on the point of view, that the symbolism depends on the point of view, and that in the very last sentence a change in point of view determines our final response to the story and comes as final ironic narrative surprise.
Kate Chopin writes the story as an all-seeing narrator, but we see everything that happens from the central character’s perspective. In the story Louise Mallard is brought news that Mr Mallard, her husband, has died in a “railroad disaster” (Chopin, 2008 p. 259) and, until the final sentence, the reader is given insights into Mrs Mallard’s responses because everything is seen from her point of view. Chopin writes:
She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow. (Chopin, 2008 p.259)
But Chopin and the reader follow her into the room and allows the reader to as well. Gradually the truth of the situation becomes clear. She is exhausted and continues to sob, but slowly it dawns on Louise Mallard that she is “free, free, free” (Chopin, 2008 p. 260) and she has a vision of the future – “a long procession of years to come that that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.” (Chopin, 2008 .p. 260) She is upset and saddened by her husband’s sudden death, but she is also excited at the thought of being able to do what she wants without the objections of her husband.. Now, in retrospect, earlier parts of the story become ironic and the full symbolic significance of the scene that Mrs Mallard sees through the open window of her room becomes clear.
When we first read it the description seems just that – a description of what she happens to see, the sort of detail that writers add to give their work a touch of realism:
She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air.... There were patches of blue sky showing here and there.... (Chopin, 2008 p. 260)
This is before she mutters to herself “free, free, free” (Chopin, 2008 p. 260) and, looking back, we can see that the fresh spring day and the blue sky are symbolic of the optimism and hope for the future she has, now that her husband is dead. It is a perfect example of point of view allowing us to appreciate the author’s symbolism, even in retrospect.
The tone and plot of The Story of an Hour is completely ironic: Mr Mallard is meant to be dead but turns up alive at the end of the story and the shock of seeing him kills his wife he is shocked because she was so happy at the thought that he was dead.; Mr Mallard lives, but his wife dies – which is ironic; Louise might be expected to break down and cry when given the news of Mr Mallard’s death in the accident- indeed, she dos burst into tears, but it turns out that these are tears of joy, not sadness – thus creating more irony; Josephine (Mrs Mallard’s sister) is concerned about Louise’s mental state as she isolates herself in her room, but actually she is happy and she is starting to understand and appreciate the freedom that she will have in the future: and the final sentence of the story is ironic too – the doctors are convinced that Louise dies from the sheer joy of seeing her husband alive, but the astute reader knows that she is stricken with grief because he is alive. The final sentence is important too because the point of view suddenly switches – from Mrs Mallard to the doctors - a perfect example of how point of view is used (or here changes abruptly) to emphasize the irony. Louise’s extreme sense of freedom might be seen as ironic too, because her marriage had not been especially unhappy. Chopin tells us “that her husband’s face... had never looked save with love upon her” (Chopin, 2008 p, 261) and also that “she had loved him – sometimes.” (Chopin, 2008 p. 261) It was a restrictive, unfulfilling marriage, but some love of a sort did exist between the couple and there is no suggestion anywhere that her husband physically abused her.
Symbolism, point of view, and the ironic tone and plot of this story are all used by Chopin to draw attention to the lack of freedom that women in 19th century America had, the restrictions that were placed on them simply by being seen as the possession of their husbands, or – as Chopin puts it from Mrs Mallard’s point of view as she contemplates with such excitement her future:
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. (Chopin, 2008 p. 261)
The Story of an Hour is an angry cry about the lack of freedom that married women enjoyed in the 19th century.
Chopin, Kate. (2008). The Awakening and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.